Pause For Field Work

Detail from a 1930s Whitbread advert: a couple in exotic climes drinking pale ale.

We’re off to London for the next week or so where we’ll be undertaking some more research and, for the first time in a while, attending the Great British Beer Festival.

The research is final phase stuff for The Big Project and will take us to pubs in such glamorous locations as Lewisham and Bishop’s Stortford, as well as back for another bout at the London Metropolitan Archives and the RIBA library, among others.

We’ve got some meetings to attend and duties to dispense at GBBF but will be knocking about having a few beers on Tuesday afternoon if anyone wants to come and say hello, or just point and laugh from a safe distance. We’ll broadcast where we’re cowering sitting standing on Twitter when we’ve found a spot. We haven’t worked out our game plan yet — nothing but milds, maybe? Or all beers from The North? We’re such lightweights we have to find a way of thinning out the field.

In the meantime, if you want something to read…

Detail from the cover of BEER magazine.

  1. We have a big feature article in the latest edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine on the subject of the history and meaning of theme pubs. Members will have a copy but non-members might consider popping along to their local CAMRA-friendly real ale pub and seeing if they have a copy knocking about.
HEADLINE: 'Ale festival looks set to get bigger'.
What’s Brewing, October 1975.

2. Last year we wrote another big feature for BEER marking the 40th anniversary of the first modern beer festival, the 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition. We’ve now made that available here on the blog — enjoy!

A brain.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons (edited).

3. And don’t miss our most recent piece for All About Beer which argues that beer geeks are nothing new.

4. We won’t be doing our usual Saturday morning news round-up this week and possibly not the next either but Stan’s Hieronymus’s Monday link-fests are great, and Jordan has started doing history-focused ‘posts of the week’ on (we gather) Fridays.

QUICK ONE: Too Many Breweries: Bureaucracy Edition

We used to have a few breweries making lots of beer; now we have lots of breweries each making a small amount. That’s great news for consumers but a nightmare for the taxman.

I’ve long been fascinated by this because, in a past life, I had dealings with the section of HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) that manages duty returns on alcohol. Back then, c.2003, it was quite possible for them to carry out a hands-on assessment of something like 98% of all beer production by visiting a handful of large brewing plants.

As the number of breweries has grown (we’re at about 1,500 now, from around 400 in 2002) I’ve often found myself wondering whether they bother inspecting at all, especially given that small brewers pay relatively less tax anyway thanks to progressive beer duty (PBD).

My assumption has been that microbreweries operate more-or-less on an honesty box system but I never got round to investigating with brewers, firing off FOI requests, and so on.

Now, as part of a wider point about fair play, this fascinating, tax-geek friendly blogpost from Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery has gone some way to answering my question:

Then, all of a sudden, the banking crisis and subsequent deficit hit hard. One day we decided to throw a whole tank full of beer away. I tried to contact the officer in HMRC and was told he had been moved out of the beer duty department and in fact HMRC wasn’t chasing the likes of us anyway. Funding to the officers was slashed and there was no one left to help us. We were almost told that we could do what we liked.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave was right and that some people had decided to take advantage of that situation. Fortunately for the Government this will probably be, to a certain extent, self-policing — that is to say, brewers will dob each other in.

Main image: HMRC by Steven Vacher from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

The Month That Was: December 2015

It’s a funny month, December: all parties, panics and listicles. Still, we managed to turn out a few ‘proper posts’ including a 2,500 worder for #BeeryLongreads.

→ The month kicked off with a discussion of ‘drinkability’ that was followed up by Ed Wray, Stan Hieronymus (‘An Anheuser-Busch campaign back in the day that put the word “drinkability” on billboards did not endear the word to those who would protect the world from bland beers’) and Allan P. Maclean (‘London Pride fits the bill precisely, although there are — and have been — others’).

Various covers for 'The Pub Crawler'.

→ Bailey reviewed The Pub Crawler, a 1950s crime novel set in and around the pubs of a fictional northern city.

→ We wondered which British beers we might drink to get an idea of why certain American brews (e.g. Heady Topper) get people so excited.

Continue reading “The Month That Was: December 2015”

A Lost Decade of Beer Writing?

An article published this week by The Atlantic rings an alarm over the impermanence of online-only content.

In ‘Raiders of the Lost Web’ Adrienne LaFrance uses as a case study an early venture in turning a piece of narrative journalism into a multimedia ‘web experience’:

[Kevin] Vaughan spent the better part of a year reporting the story. And in that time, a team of web designers, photographers, videographers, and engineers worked with him to build a web experience around the series—the first time the [Rocky Mountain News] had built something digital of this scope… It was worth the effort… In 2008, Vaughan was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the series. The next year, the Rocky folded. And in the months that followed, the website slowly broke apart. One day, without warning, “The Crossing” evaporated from the Internet.

In the (less important) world of beer much of value has also been lost, in part or in full, or lingers on only in fragile form via the Wayback Machine web archiving project.

Continue reading “A Lost Decade of Beer Writing?”

What Meantime Means to Us

As well as its significance in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, Alastair Hook’s Meantime Brewery has been important to us on a personal level.

Meantime taught us that lager wasn’t just lager: tasting the range side by side, we could tell that ‘Cologne-style’ was not the same as Helles, which was definitely different to Golden Beer.  They were subtle, but distinctive.

Meantime put Vienna-style lager and Kölsch in Sainsburys supermarkets where we could buy four bottles for £4 and we turned up at many parties and barbecues with those packs under our arms c.2004.

Having read about porter, we wanted to taste it, but there didn’t seem to be many around a decade ago; Meantime fixed that, too. And their big 7.5% IPA was among the first we tasted that gave us a glimpse of what had people so excited about US takes on the style, and so dismissive of Greene King’s — it was boozy, fruity, juicy and bold.

The Union, Meantime’s brewery tap in Greenwich, was the first British pub where we really noticed beer being treated with respect. Half pints came in stemmed tulip glasses, bottles were served in snifters, and no-one seemed to care how much or how little you drank as long as you enjoyed it. We crossed London to get there, time and time again, and there was always something new to try. It was the world of Michael Jackson’s books brought to life.

In recent years, however, our ardour has faded. The brewery’s focus seems to have moved from obscure sub-styles to London Lager (oh, so lager is just lager after all?), Pale Ale and Yakima Red — beers that want so badly to be accepted everywhere that they blend into the banquettes. Alastair Hook has always been obsessed with consistency and control — he is passionate and eloquent on the subject — but perhaps, in recent years, Meantime has too often crossed the fine line between clean and bland? (We’re not sure, to be honest, that they are an upgrade from the mainstream as Pete Brown argues here, though we know what he means.)

This isn’t about demanding obscurity or ‘extremes’: if we want US-style pale ale, we buy Sierra Nevada. Porter? Sam Smith’s or Anchor. Big IPA? BrewDog Punk, or the ubiquitous Goose Island IPA, at £2 a bottle. If we want a British-brewed version of a classic German style, we increasingly find ourselves looking to Thornbridge. (Where the brewing team is led by Rob Lovatt, formerly of… Meantime.)

The acquisition of Meantime by SAB Miller isn’t catastrophic, just another step in the direction they’ve been travelling for some time. We’ll always have a soft spot for Meantime, and will continue to make pilgrimages to Greenwich, where the draught lager can still be transcendent.